Fundamentals of Residential Lighting

Any discussion of home lighting must begin with five important concepts:

  • Task Lighting
  • Ambient Lighting
  • Accent Lighting
  • Layered Lighting
  • Dimming and Lighting Controls
  • Task Lighting

    Task lighting is the lighting necessary to carry out specific activities in the home. Generally, task lighting is higher in intensity than other types of lighting. There are four primary tasks that require higher than average lighting levels.

  • Lighting for food preparation and cooking
  • Lighting for grooming (shaving, putting on makeup, etc.)
  • Lighting for reading
  • Lighting for a variety of activities in a laundry room.
  • Footcandles are the unit that we use to measure the amount of lighting reaching a task. A footcandle is a simple concept, and one footcandle is the amount of light reaching a surface that is one foot away from one candle when no other light is present.

    The level of footcandles necessary to achieve good task lighting is approximately 50, and can be achieved in a variety of ways. Your lighting consultant can help you to better understand this concept and can help you to achieve this level of lighting.

    Ambient Lighting

    Ambient lighting is a term used to describe the total amount of light that is present in a space. We can say that a room has high or low levels of ambient lighting.

    Ambient lighting can also be provided by placing surface mounted fixtures at the ceiling. A recent trend is the use of decorative chandeliers in almost any space in the home. A chandelier is highly useful for providing high ambient lighting when necessary, or it can be dimmed to provide a very soft and low level of ambient lighting.

    Accent Lighting

    Accent lighting is any type of lighting that brings attention to itself or to an object. Most commonly we think of accent lighting as any light that focuses attention on an object. Paintings, framed photographs, posters and three-dimensional art are likely candidates for accent lighting.

    Accent lighting also can be considered to be lighting fixtures or built-in lighting that has an artistic quality which brings attention to itself. Almost any hanging fixture can be considered to be a form of accent lighting since the fixture is a predominant and artistic element that brings attention to itself.

    Layered Lighting

    Layered lighting is the process of placing multiple types of lighting in a single space. The most comfortable lighting conditions in a home are often created when the lighting is being created from a variety of sources. Generally, three layers are a good target for achieving a good balance of lighting.

    In any room, it is possible to place a combination of light sources. In a kitchen, for example, it is good practice to put three or four layers of light. Good task lighting can be achieved with a combination of undercabinet lighting and recessed lighting. Ambient and accent lighting can be achieved with a central chandelier and/or wall sconces. If the kitchen cabinets are open above the cabinets, it is often good practice to place some type of lighting above the cabinets to create a soft glow as an accent.

    Dimming and Lighting Controls

    The term “lighting controls” is used to define any product that allows us to turn lighting on and off and to control the intensity of light in a space. Dimmers are the products that allow both the ability to turn lights on and off and to modulate the intensity of light from a lighting fixture.

    Dimmers have potential use in almost every location in the home. They are typically used in the dining room, but they will add much comfort and flexibility if used throughout the home. Especially in rooms such as bathrooms and kitchens, dimmer can add significantly to the quality of light in these spaces.

    Bathroom Lighting

    Much as with the kitchen, master bathrooms are a central focus of the modern home and should therefore be provided with a variety of lighting options. Focusing on the various tasks that occur in the bath can be a guide to providing appropriate lighting.

    Lighting for Grooming

    The most important task lighting solution and the first layer for consideration is lighting at the vanity area. The primary task here is grooming, including applying makeup, shaving, etc. The grooming tasks generally require the highest level of lighting in the bath, and this lighting solution is therefore extremely important.

    The most ideal solution for grooming is to provide lighting at the sides of the mirror. Placing the lighting at the sides allows the light to wash the face from a horizontal direction and creates no shadows on the face. This type of wall-mounted or mirror-mounted lighting can be achieved using either incandescent or fluorescent sources. Both of these sources can be dimmed, and it is highly recommended that a dimmer be provided for the task lighting for grooming.

    Incandescent Fixtures

    Incandescent wall fixtures for the vanity area are available today in an extraordinary range of styles. The older incandescent vanity strips that used exposed globe light bulbs remain available, but are not generally the best solution for purposes of an appropriate design solution. Interestingly, these vanity strips do provide an excellent quality of light and that is why they are often used in dressing rooms in theaters and movie sets.

    Fluorescent fixtures

    Fluorescent vanity fixtures also are available for placement either on the sides or the top of the mirror. Although not as many design options are available using fluorescent bulbs, there are more options than you might expect. One of the benefits of using fluorescent fixtures is that fluorescent lighting today is extremely efficient and therefore provides excellent light with very little heat exposure.

    Fluorescent bulbs in today’s market are available in a range of options that are classified by their “color temperature” and their “color rendering” ability. Older bulbs were called by terms such as “cool white” and “warm white” but these terms are not used today. The color temperature scale defines the relative visual “warmth” or visual “coolness” of a fluorescent lamp. The higher the number, the more cool that the bulb appears, and the lower the color temperature, the warmer that the bulb appears.

    Fixtures above the mirror

    If placing fixtures on the side of the mirror is not possible or practical, there are many fixture options that can be placed above the mirror. Typically, this placement is more common and often easier than placing the lighting on the sides of the mirror. The key to create a successful lighting solution is to choose a fixture that is appropriately sized to the size of the mirror.

    A general rule of thumb is to provide 100 watts of incandescent lighting for every 18″ of horizontal width of the mirror. Placing fixtures above the mirror is equal in quality to fixtures placed on the side as long as the fixtures provide an adequate intensity of light.


    Using a dimmer on the vanity fixtures is extremely important and can add tremendous comfort to this area of the bath. Most of the time the amount of lighting provided by a vanity fixture is excellent for the grooming tasks, but it is excessive for the general use of the bathroom. Providing a dimming capability allows the fixture’s light intensity to be modulated for the other tasks that occur in the bathroom. It cannot be overstated how important this option can be for adding comfort to the bath.

    Lighting for the shower and tub

    For the other tasks in the bathroom, it is important to provide another series of lighting layers. In the shower or the tub, it is important to place lighting directly above these areas. In order to meet the standards of the National Electrical Code, these fixtures must be labeled as meeting the requirements for wet conditions. This are typically called “wet label” fixtures. There are many varieties of fixtures that meet these requirements, and they can be either recessed or surface mounted.

    Lighting for the water closet

    In smaller bathrooms, the vanity lighting is often sufficient for general lighting in the water closet area. However, if the water closet is far from the vanity or is placed in a separate compartment, it is necessary to provide a separate light source for that area. It is useful to provide a decorative ceiling mounted fixture for this purpose, or a recessed fixture placed close to the water closet.

    General ambient lighting

    Placing a decorative lighting fixture in the center of the bathroom is an excellent lighting solution for any bathroom. The decorative options available for this type of fixtures are endless, and it has become very common and appropriate to use highly decorative fixtures in bathrooms. There are many options available, including surface-mounted fixtures, close-to-ceiling, and hanging chandeliers. When these fixtures are also controlled by a dimmer, they add a tremendously high sense of elegance and comfort to the bathroom.

    Ceiling Fixtures – Pendants and Chandeliers

    Ceiling fixtures provide excellent general room illumination. Pendants can also be used to add more light to specific areas such as a kitchen table, and ceiling mounted fixtures are ideal for general lighting in the foyer. For safety in hallways, install lighting fixtures approximately every 8 to 10 feet.

    Chandeliers or pendants with 200-400 watts of overall wattage provide abundant illumination for a dining room. The diameter of the fixture should be 12″ less than the width of the table, and the fixture should be centered over the table and installed 30″ above the table to allow for headroom when standing.

    Decorative Accents

    The most common applications of decorative accent lighting are under cabinet lighting for kitchens, accent lighting in entertainment and curio cabinets, picture highlighting, backlighting on the top of cabinets, and “toe” lighting around the bottom of cabinets.

    Newer, more decorative under cabinet lights are now available to replace and upgrade older fluorescent fixtures. Halogen lights are also gaining popularity in this category.

    Dining Room Lighting

    The most common lighting solution in a dining room is to use a decorative chandelier above the table. It is often desirable to add at least two other layers of light in the space.

    The use of two sconces on one wall is always desirable. The sconces will bring a human scale and desirable focus to the perimeter of the space. If there is a large buffet, use two candlestick accent table lamps as an option to the sconces.

    In all cases, place dimmers on all fixtures. Dimmers will provide exceptional control and flexibility for the variety of tasks that occur in a dining room. In the case of a dining room, it is also suggested that an integrated dimming system be considered. These systems allow you to dim the lights, but also allow for pre-set scenes that are programmed into the system. This process adds much comfort and flexibility for creating an ideal lighting environment.

    Foyer Lighting

    The appropriate lighting in a foyer is often guided by the scale of the room. Whatever the size, however, the use of layering is a useful and appropriate solution.

    In almost every situation, the use of a decorative fixture in the center of the ceiling is desirable. In two-story spaces, the use of a larger chandelier will fit well for creating both task lighting and ambient lighting. The chandelier also will bring attention to itself and create a desirable accent focus.

    Other useful foyer lighting solutions, in addition to the central chandelier, are to use wall sconces and/or small portable table lamps placed on a small table in the space. The sconces and table lamps add a valuable layering effect that brings a human scale to the space. While recessed and decorative ceiling fixtures add appropriate task and ambient lighting, sconces and table lamps bring a sense of human scale and are excellent for creating focal accent points.

    Kitchen Lighting

    Because of the wide variety of tasks that occur in the kitchen, it is always useful to install a variety of lighting layers that provide flexibility and adequate task lighting. As a general rule, it is useful to apply a minimum of three layers in any kitchen.

    The first layer for consideration should focus on the primary tasks that occur in the kitchen. Of course, this will be task lighting at the work counters where food preparation and cooking will take place. If possible, the most ideal first layer is to apply undercabinet lighting directly above the tasks. This type of lighting can be selected from a variety of sources, including halogen, xenon, and fluorescent lamps.

    Other possible layers in a kitchen include the possible use of wall sconces, accent lighting on wall art, and accent lighting at the top of cabinets or at the kickspace of the cabinets. These types of accent lighting options will add visual interest and will enhance the aesthetics of the space.


    Accent lamps can be used in bedrooms, bathrooms, hallways, entrances or any spot in your home that may require extra lighting. Because accent lamps are typically under 20″ in height, they provide just the right amount of accent lighting for most any home.

    Lamps are essential home decorating accessories. The style and finish of a lamp is as important as the wallpaper, carpet or paint used in a room. Although polished brass remains a favorite with homeowners, polished brass, wrought iron, neutral tans, off-whites, and antique whites are gaining popularity.

    Remember if you purchase a lamp with a three-way switch, you’ll need to purchase a three-way bulb. A three-way switch, on its own, will not provide three levels of illumination without a three-way bulb installed.


    Shade sizes are expressed in 3 dimensions. The first represents the top diameter, the second represents the bottom diameter, and the third represents the shade’s height. One common rule is that the height of a shade should equal the measurement taken from the base of the lamp to the bottom of the bulb socket. However, some newer styles of lamps and accent lamps may vary from this rule, so discretion should be used when selecting your shade.

    The lampshade should be at least as wide as the widest point of the lamp body. Most people prefer the lampshade to be several inches wider than the lamp. In addition, the bottom of the shade should cover the bottom of the socket when viewed at eye level.

    Outdoor Lights – Landscape

    Landscape lighting can be used to improve the beauty of your home’s exterior while providing security and safety. Enhance the ambiance of your property at night with low-voltage landscape lighting of trees, shrubs and flowers, plus increase safety by lighting up stairs, driveways, walkways and grounds with post lanterns and tier lights. Low voltage lighting uses only 12 volts of electricity and is safe to install.

    You can easily create a lighting plan by choosing one or two points of interest and make these the centerpiece of your landscape lighting display, then build the rest of your lighting plan around your focal point. Unique landscape features, such as sculptures and shaped shrubbery, can be highlighted using spotlights, or a sequence of spotlights can create an interesting mosaic of colors and textures. In addition, up-lighting adds visual interest to objects such as trees, bushes, statues and fountains.

    Outdoor Lights

    Outdoor lighting makes your home safer and more secure by providing necessary illumination for walkways, steps and entrances. The use of outdoor lighting, in conjunction with timers and photo cells, can add even more peace-of-mind by providing a lived-in look while you’re away from home and insuring the area around the house is well lit when you arrive home after dark.

    The most common type of outdoor fixture is a brass wall lantern, although materials such as cast aluminum have gained popularity due to their rust-resistant qualities. Generally, a light mounted to one side of every exterior door is the minimum lighting for the exterior of a house, however it is recommended that a lantern or other wall fixture on both sides of the door and a pendant or a post light near driveways and walkways be used for additional safety and security. Be sure to select the appropriate size fixture – one that isn’t too small or too big for your home.

    Outdoor Lights – Utility

    Always select a lighting alternative that will provide the right amount of lighting needed for an area. Using motion-activated lighting will ensure that front and rear entrances to your home are secure, will welcome guests and startle intruders. For added security, choose a motion light with an indoor alarm module so that you know what’s going on outside.

    Choose a motion detector light with a sensor that best suits your needs: A sensor with a broad range of coverage would be better suited to a yard than to an entrance. Since motion detectors and utility lighting come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it’s easy to choose fixtures that are well suited for your home.

    Recessed Lighting

    Recessed light fixtures can be used for concentrated down lighting, which creates attractive and inviting living areas for the home. This effect is perfect for lighting a kitchen counter or bathroom vanity because it confines illumination to one specific area, making detailed tasks easier to perform. Recessed lighting works best with other lighting and can be dimmed for special effects.

    Recessed light fixtures can also be used for accent lighting. You can draw attention to a painting, a plant or any other noteworthy object in any room in your home. Rooms may appear larger with recessed light fixtures by washing a wall in light. This technique–perfect for small living areas–adds visual depth by creating shadows and contrasts.

    Wall-Mounted Lighting

    Wall fixtures are used to provide illumination for a specific area such as a hallway or a bathroom vanity. Although traditional wall fixtures with arms remain the most popular form of wall lighting, more contemporary wall sconces are gaining popularity, especially for hallway or accent lighting.

    Wall lighting can offer needed illumination levels to prevent accidents on stairs, especially when an overhead ceiling fixture is not feasible. Wall lighting can also be used for reading in bed. Use two matching wall mounted or pendant fixtures installed 30″ above the top of the mattress for best results.